THE CAGE was a collaborative workshop that took place over three-day with Spanish artist Julian Baron, IC-Visual Lab, and workshop participants. The workshop was held in the graphic design studios at UWE Bristol, and was a collaboration with: People’s Republic of Stokes Croft; Acción Cultural Española (AC/E); Arnolfini; The University of West of England, and Arts Council England. The brief was to respond visually to the UK housing crisis. The workshop was experimental and the aim was to create a experimental publication and a public installation in a Bristol location.
DANCING WITH THE ARCHIVE AND LAYING FOUNDATIONS
On the first day of the workshop, the housing crisis was explored through an archive of historic images picturing such topics as: the slum conditions of 1930s Wigan; the destruction of houses in World War Two; the construction (and destruction) of tower blocks; the sell-off of social housing; the cycle of housing bubbles; buy-to- let; the rise of ‘Generation Rent’; and the culpable homicide of Grenfell Tower.
A talk by ACORN Bristol, the tenant’s union and anti-poverty organising group, laid out a set of concerns that they see on a daily basis. Some of these concerns were also experienced by workshop participants. They consisted of: substandard housing; crowded conditions; failing to return deposits; the overlap of speculation and eviction; the human costs of lack of security, comfort, and sleep; and the physical and mental health problems that this creates for adults and children alike.
Four initial areas were collectively decided on to inform the production stage the following day. These were: Living Costs and Standards of Housing, Privatisation and Home Ownership, Tenant Identity, and Homelessness.
BREAKING THE GROUND AND CONSTRUCTION
The second day was about making visual work for the publication and enough to fill a 60 x 10-foot wall on Bristol’s Stokes Croft, using photocopied imagery, computer generated text and created pictograms, collage and past-up, and screen print. Design concepts were produced and tested for the wall installation too.
The content of the work was about: overpriced rents, multi-occupancy housing, buy-to- let, sofa surfing, trust funds, hedge funds, second homes, holiday homes, empty homes, crowded homes, the homeless, the speculator, the carpet-bagger, the property developer, the estate agent, the London downsizer, the student flat and the overseas hedge-better. It was about the end of social housing and the boom in the bedsit economy; it was about family albums, real estate photography, planning images, façadism, housing advocacy, Grand Designs, Shelter, and a Place in the Sun. It was Costa del Sol ghost towns and English gentrification.
It was also about numbers: 47 and 43 – the life expectancy of a homeless British man and woman; 234,000 – the average price of a home in Southwest England; 42 and 8 – the percentage of people who lived in social housing in 1979, compared to the percentage in 2016; 2 million and 5 million – the number of private landlords in the UK and the number of houses they privately let.
HARD REALITIES AND CUTTING THE RIBBON
The final day moved from content production to editing; making sense of the mass of visual ideas, images, statements and statistics; planning how to fill the wall with content that tied together, that posed questions, suggested answers and invited the viewer in; and producing the final publication.
The result is Public Art meets Democracy Wall, a collaborative and chaotic experiment in vocalising the housing crisis that affects everyone. It is no longer about whether you have a house – it’s whether you have a roof, a room, or a bed. If you do, it’s about the people that do not, the people you see rough-sleeping in every town in Britain on a scale not seen since the 1930s.
It is also about the lack of security for people who cannot afford to buy. It is about the constant moving and the disruption to work, to education, to growing up, growing old, or growing sick, that people now experience in a way that is the deliberate product of successive government’s policy. This housing crisis is a politically made problem, one that we should take responsibility for. The solutions to this problem are ready and available for us, and that is what this workshop was about.